During Moctar Yara’s first week as a Harlem street vendor, after not making a single dollar selling scarves and hats, he decided he would rather raise cattle. “We had cows back home in Mali and I love them, but I was scared to get out of New York City because I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have money,” said Yara, who arrived in 1992.
A lack of urban bovines didn’t keep Yara down, and during his second week as a vendor he made a $20 sale. Within three weeks, he says, he had pulled in several thousand dollars. Today, Yara owns and runs two branches of Yara African Fabrics – a wholesale business in the Bronx and its retail counterpart on 125th Street.
On a bright Sunday afternoon, hat-sporting church ladies and European tourists shuffle by the West Harlem storefront that he shares with Bola International Boutique, a tailor shop. Now and then, Yara’s Blackberry rings. He apologizes before answering in Soninke or English to family and customers (some of whom he met in those first trying weeks).
The store’s foot traffic is slow this afternoon, but regular customer Carolyn Johnson eventually stops in with an order for her website Welcome to Harlem. “That’s the mayor of Harlem right there!” Yara shouts as she walks in the door.
She rolls her eyes with a knowing grin and asks him to cut five one-yard pieces of a Senegalese design that includes cowrie-shells, wooden stools, and palm trees. They banter playfully about her tour company, shared concerns about the presidential election, and gushed over an incoming shipment of new patterns (“Listen.. this new stuff.. oh my God!”).
All Yara’s fabrics cost $7 per yard (the average dress requiring six yards) and are 100-percent cotton. Wholesale customers must purchase a minimum of 73 yards, while his retail customers typically buy six to 12 yards for clothing, curtains, or tablecloths.
Yara offers Malian mud cloth, kente from Ghana, and a vivid assortment of wax-print cloth – emblazoned with anything from dartboards to hens – made in Senegal and other West African nations. “Customers always want to see new designs, and when [they] come out we take a chance,” said Yara. “We bring in at least 100 pieces, and if it works, we add more the following shipment.”
Fashion labels of all echelons have showcased dresses, blazers, and other wax-print garments over the last couple years. Recent collections by Burberry and Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B. prominently featured fabrics from Vlisco, a high-end cloth producer. In light of these trends, Yara started traveling to textile shows in L.A. and Las Vegas. Last year he sold a kente and mud cloth mix to American Apparel and worked with New York-based designer Cynthia Rowley.
“A lot of people don’t want to go through the headache of customs, so they order through me,” said Yara.
Today, the block he started on houses fine restaurants like Red Rooster and Chez Lucienne. Tour buses filled with Chinese, German, and Quebecois tourists roar down 125th Street, past chain stores like Starbucks and Applebee’s. Yara says that it’s become harder for small businesses like his to stay on this famous Gotham strip, but understands that landlords are business people too.
“Everybody’s looking for money, money, money,” he said. “They’re looking for growth.”